After a few listens, it becomes clear that the 'second psychedelic era' doesn't exist.
It's just a coincidence that Rhino's new entry in the Nuggets series arrived just as Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, hits TV, but the timing is convenient. The much-hyped Dylan movie wraps up in 1966, before Blood on the Tracks, before the conversion to Christianity, before "Soy Bomb". The directors and producers want us to believe that those early years were the most important in Dylan's career. They've tried to define an era -- just what Rhino is trying to do with this box set.
While the Dylan retrospective (and the first Nuggets boxes) was an attempt to whittle down a major rock era into one neat package, Children of Nuggets goes at this from the other direction. Head compilers Alec Palao and Gary Stewart try to crowbar two decades of music into something grander, picking songs which (in Palao's words) "reflect the full range of post-punk music that wedded a stylish foot in the past to a passionate rock 'n' roll spirit." The box's subtitle, Original Artyfacts from the Second Psychedelic Era 1976-1996, promises to bring all this together into one 100-chapter story.
It leads to some awkward fits. The bands on these discs have been placed in specific genres for some time now, put there by the artists themselves, as well as compilers like... well, like Rhino. Before the smash success of the Nuggets box, the label packaged many of these songs as part of tight, thematic little sets called D.I.Y., Poptopia!, and Post-Punk Chronicles. The joyful Hoodoo Gurus single "I Want You Back" has been called power pop (on Poptopia!) and underground (on last year's Left of the Dial), and all of a sudden, it's a Nugget?
Most of the songs that haven't appeared on other compilations are straight '60s revivalism that sound like Nuggets outtakes. A song like "She Told Me Lies" by the Chesterfield Kings boasts all the hallmarks of a garage/beat a-side, with sneering lyrics, shuffling guitars, a loud organ, and a finale that has the whole band speeding up to a freakout. When similar-sounding songs crop up (there's a whole slew of them on the final disc), the whole concept of post-punk-as-rebellious-'60s-rock starts to gel. And then a Teenage Fanclub song will shred through the haze and start you wondering again.
After a few listens, it becomes clear that the "second psychedelic era" doesn't exist. The first Nuggets sets (and really all '60s compilations) do represent an era, because they collect the work of bands that were trying to cash in on the spacey pop-rock that everyone was listening to. The bands on this set couldn't have broken into the mainstream if they wanted to, even though, for example, any Flamin' Groovies song is better than "Incense and Peppermints". They were cherry-picking from all the rock styles that had come before them, and releasing records to small audiences on their own terms. Just like the Bob Dylan of 1966 didn't think he was a "'60s" artist whose best work was behind him, these bands didn't try to be part of a bold new rock era.
Of course, whether or not the heroic theme of this collection makes sense has little to do with how much it rocks. There are 100 songs here and maybe a dozen of them aren't great. Some of the biggest surprises are fantastic songs by the Bangles, pre-"Eternal Flame", and a hooky single called "There Must Be a Better Life" sung by future Creation Records mogul Alan McGee. Dozens of these songs have been completely forgotten, moldering on vinyl EPs and unavailable to even dedicated power-pop fans. Songs by the Stems, the Bevis Frond, and the Sinners outshine tracks by more-famous poppers like Julian Cope and the Plimsouls. Unfortunately, there's a lot of variance in sound quality between the poppier songs and the more '60s-sounding ones -- tracks by L.A.'s the Last sound like they were recorded inside Roky Erikson's skull.
Iffy concept aside, this is a rich collection of songs. Included in the booklet, after the essays and rundown of artists and songs, there's a nice tribute to the Bomp! label's founder Greg Shaw, who died in 2004. Looking over the lists of compilations he worked on, including the Pebbles series and many discs of British rock, is a way to remember that categories and myth-making are less important than just listening to as much music as possible.